By: Matt Meade
2. Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures (1979)
I am going to liberate you from a burden you have been carrying around for a long time. Are you ready? Here it is: You don’t have to listen to Unknown Pleasures anymore.
That’s right. You are absolved from keeping it on your iPhone, from playing it as background music when your friends come over, from letting it rattle through your headphones as you sit at your desk and write angry emails to your boss (and let’s be honest, you are never gonna send those emails anyway). You don’t have to make a big deal about it. You can just stop. And hey. Relax. I am not talking about Closer, you can listen to that one if you want (the In Utero of the 80s, or the Eyes Wide Shut of pop music? It’s unclear, but I am still not convinced that the song “Isolation” isn’t some kind of brilliant, Ali-G style hoax). And I know how tragic was Ian Curtis’ plight. I know about his epileptic fits, his tortured bout with his own sexuality, and that he he was rock and roll martyred at the age of 23. I know. I am not trying to be a total asshole. I am just trying to lift the burden you have been carrying.
And don’t confuse the great album art for a great record, either. We can agree. It is a fucking great album cover. I know you had that cool, black shirt with the image on the chest that looked like a topographical map of the alien world where every disaffected kid has spent time. I know you would wear it to parties when you were in college, and it served as a litmus test because only angelheaded hipsters, and the coolest dropouts would know what it was. They would give you nods, and knowing looks that got you higher than the cheap beer, and bad coke you could find at the party. And I know that the girl you were sleeping with at the time, the one who had way better taste in music than you, ended up stealing it, and you pretended to hate her for a long time, but you actually felt sort of good about the fact that she thought the shirt was worth stealing.
This isn’t about her, or those parties you used to go to, or even all the top 10 lists the record somehow makes its way onto. This is about whether or not you want to listen to this record. And you don’t. You really don’t. We can agree that the record has some things going for it. It’s raw, it’s bleak, and it’s angry. It did some new things with punk music, and it ushered in an era of post punk that made way for bands like Echo and the Bunnymen, and Primal Scream, but as much as the ideas are exciting, none of the stuff on this record works as music.
First, the kids who made this record are far from the most impressive musicians in mine, yours, or anyone else’s music collection. These DIY boys, inspired by Sid Vicious, are trying too hard to stay on beat and it is embarrassing. The musicianship, or lack thereof, is not unforgivable. After all, I believe in all those shoegaze and post punk bands who exist in the wake of Joy Division, many of whom played their instruments in a compellingly inept way. But if you are going to go that route, you can’t have too high a production value for your record. By the time My Bloody Valentine came along, they had figured out that you had to drench your poor musicianship in a batter of feedback and then fry it in noise for the music to be interesting. But Joy Division didn’t exist for long enough to realize how far they needed to go with these techniques.
The production of this record should have been hands-off and should have tried to capture the energy of these kids at a pivotal moment in their lives and in their music. Instead, the producer, Martin Hannett, becomes a sort of de facto member of the band, shaping and reforming these impressionable and damaged adolescents into a band that they were not before. Hannett can’t resist putting his greasy fingerprints all over this record. It is mixed in such a way that you can’t miss a single clam, a single strained vocal, and there are even wild effects added to create some sort of bleak, moody atmosphere. Some of the gimmicks used on the record come close to working, like the backmasking that starts “New Dawn Fades,” or where Curtis sings certain songs through a telephone wire to create the appropriate sense of “distance.” These are the kinds of things that you do when you are really committing to the process of making a rock and roll record. But some of the production choices are downright dumb. For example, there are so many bottles being smashed throughout the record that I sometimes start to suspect that Unknown Pleasures is actually a prog-rock style concept record that takes place during a turf fight between mutated frog people and well dressed, cane-wielding, amazon women. You think I am exaggerating? This is a record full of references to territory, and bloodsport, and traveling far and wide, and the “center of the city where all the roads meet.” There is even a reference to Interzone. [I don’t like having to denigrate William S. Burroughs, but no one should reference Interzone in their rock and roll record, not even David Bowie. When you do that, you reveal too much about yourself. It’s almost like admitting to a friend what your favorite porn websites are. Your friend doesn’t want to talk to you about it, so let’s just not mention it, ok? You fucking asshole.] And if those nonsense ideas don’t convince you that the record is ill-conceived and overproduced there are honest to goodness laser beam fights in the middle of Insight. Plural. Multiple fucking laser beam fights. More than one in case we missed it the first time, I presume. I mean, there is nothing more juvenile than that. I don’t want to listen to that in the middle of a rock and roll record. Do you? You don’t. I know you don’t. You can admit it. Also, you go to youporn.com too, right? And if Unknown Pleasures not a sci-fi inspired prog-rock concept record that takes place in a post-apocalyptic, nightmare world, then what on earth are these songs about?
And look, let’s be honest, Ian Curtis is not much of a lead singer. I know that you don’t want to address this, but we have to. I know that he is doing the best he can, but his vocals are strained, and pitchy, and sort of all over the place. He is not quite sure where to put the emphasis, or how to use his voice. “But the lyrics!” you say. Ian Curtis gets a lot of credit for his lyrics. There are even some heartsick outsiders who go so far as to call him a genius. Let’s address these claims. Sure his lyrics are dark and evocative and suggestive, but he was an evolving talent. His lyrics certainly have intention behind them, but Curtis struggles to really put together anything profound, or revelatory, and more often than not, he is struggling to find rhymes for his wounded sentiments. Sure the guy is a little more thoughtful than the Buzzcocks, but nothing on this record is more interesting than the lyrics from, say, “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” When you compare Curtis’ lyrics to Iggy’s, the stuff from Unknown Pleasures seems safe and melodramatic. The guy even put the following lyric into a song: “We’ll share a drink and step outside / An angry voice and one who cried…” Why not “the one who lied?” Why not, “the one who tried?” And he follows up this good-enough lyric with the following: “We’ll give you everything and more, / The strain’s too much, can’t take much more.” That’s right. Rhyming “more” with “more.” It’s not even a homonym. This is the kind of thing scrawled in the margins of books of Sylvia Plath poetry, or dog-eared copies of Love in the Time of Cholera. He showed a lot of promise in a lot of ways, but he was 23 when this record came out. His lyrics sound like the poetry of a depressed college kid, because his lyrics are the poetry of a depressed college kid.
Sure they were young, sure they were developing a unique sound antithetical to what was popular at the time, and of course their story is tragic. And I am not saying that New Order isn’t a good band because they are, and “60 miles an Hour,” “Age of Consent,” and “Ceremony,” are great tunes. But we are talking about Unknown Pleasures. Off key, off beat, over-produced, undercooked, Unknown Pleasures. It’s not good and you don’t have to listen to it anymore.
How about this? You can keep the vinyl displayed prominently near your super hip turn table, just don’t worry about ever placing the needle on the record, or pressing play on the Mp3 ever again. You are absolved.
Song I would listen to if you held a gun to my head: “Day of the Lords,” or maybe “Shadowplay.” Ok, “Day of the Lords.” Final answer.
Listen to this instead: Marquee Moon by Television. This band plumbed the same dark, mysterious depths of punk music, except with a true master of the guitar leading the expedition.